You're probably reading this post on a computer or mobile device via a vibrant glow emitted by the screen. So readily available to many of us, light and power only becomes evident in their unexpected absence - the frustration of dead batteries, power outages and darkness.
Yet for 622million people in Africa, energy poverty is the norm. Home to one-sixth of the world's population, Africa receives only 4% of the world's energy supply.
Growing up in Africa, my partners Thione Niang, Samba Bathily and myself had one daily goal: beating the sun, knowing that life comes to a standstill at sunset. Business and schoolwork stops, streets become dangerous, especially for women and children, and critical medical services come to a halt. Upon leaving Africa, we saw how artificial light enriched innovation, learning and creativity. We each came back to our respective villages to find children still reading by candlelight and the quality of life virtually unchanged.
The Akon Lighting Initiative in Guinea
Inspired by my own childhood I knew that we could electrify Africa now, and we could do it quickly. Africa enjoys more than 320 days of sunshine a year and we are harnessing that energy and bringing it to the continent's most remote villages. Solar technology exists, and new innovations enhance its potential every day. I desperately wanted to find a sound business model to address the massive need for electricity and foster inclusive growth. This model is what we developed, uniting based on our best strengths: I knew that Samba could supply expertise in solar solutions, that Thione could devise an approach to leverage energy as an enabler for job creation and inclusive growth, while I could mobilize an international network of support and call for action. This is how Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) was born.
In the past year, Akon Lighting Africa has partnered with banks, governments and providers of solar technology to install street lamps and home-based solar kits that include micro-generators, lamps and charging stations throughout 14 countries - Senegal, Mali, Niger, Benin, Guinea-Conakry, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Kenya, Sierra-Leone, Burkina Faso at the beginning, now being joined by Nigeria, Namibia, Madagascar. We light up homes, schools, health centers and religious spaces, invest in training technicians and provide speedy access to the technology, illuminating homes and lives almost instantly.
Ribbon cutting for the first electrified village, Tolomadi with village chief Samake Bakary
Energy will unlock the continent's potential. Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70 percent under the age of 35. Artificial light will enable uninterrupted learning, allow small businesses to continue operating and spur the development of new enterprises. To give one example, ALA has already created no less than 5,000 jobs in Guinea-Conakry as local young people are trained to market, install and repair street lamps. And it is only the beginning: we are about to open a new solar training center targeting African technicians and engineers to spread up competences over the continent.
People ask me how it works, and how we've been so successful. Well, the concept is simple. Much like a "prepaid" phone card - we want to offer prepaid clean energy, thanks to credits from partnering banks. Credits can be refunded by governments which can then pay through installments at the pace they choose. This innovative approach has been a differentiator and part of our success. We are growing fast. We are currently moving in some countries from pilot projects to participation in public tenders for national electrification programs.
The Akon Lighting Initiative in Mali
We don't give money, we give solutions. We have developed a new service model that will allow for users to pay less than what is spent for candles, kerosene and batteries all together. Our service will be cheaper, on average $10 a month for access - through home-based kits. With much of Sub-Saharan Africa living on less than $2 a day, this low cost can be the difference between darkness and a source of light. We are currently partnering with micro-credit agencies to replicate our pre-paid model at individual level.
While foreign aid can be very slow while funding trickles its way to those who need power the most, our micro-lending model, backed by African banks, reduces wait time for installment to a matter of days. This is an effective answer, for effective empowerment. To many of those we've helped, it is the first time they have ever seen artificial light.
Akon speaking before the United Nations at the Sustainable Energy 4 All Forum, May 2015
Considered a best case study, Akon Lighting Africa was recently honored by the United Nations at the May 2015 Sustainable Energy 4 All Forum in New York City. We are proud of our tangible results that show that we can power up Africa - our proof of concept is enabling us to receive larger commitments from the private banking sector and to overcome African governments' skepticism in order to build public-private partnerships with solid and trustworthy entrepreneurs.
Africa does not need charity. Africa is a wealthy continent, with an incredible human potential. Africa basks in creativity, generosity, talent, innovation. And Africa is ready to share that wealth with the rest of the world. As we shift the development paradigm from "aid" to fair "trade", the world will finally gain greater access to the brilliant ideas and talent... coming from this generation of Africa's youth.
Akon is a philanthropist, five-time Grammy-nominated recording artist and co-founder of the Akon Lighting Africa Initiative